Saturday, 27 July 2013

Hungaroring Qualifying: Lewis's ambush

In the event he sounded as surprised as anyone.

Perhaps it shouldn't have been so: after all this is his third pole position in a row, and his team has now claimed seven of the last eight. But still when it happened it seemed incredibly unforeseen.

Lewis Hamilton - unexpectedly - ambushed pole position
Photo: Octane Photography
From an early point the qualifying battle appeared to be as per usual for the 2013 season: Sebastian Vettel versus the Mercedes drivers Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton; the only variation being perhaps Romain Grosjean getting in there as an interloper. But even among these Vettel looked seriously hard to stop: he'd been on top for all of Friday - on both single lap pace and longer runs - and coyly had concentrated on race set up in Saturday morning practice. And his haughty status looked even more firmly set as he, in that way of his, swept round the Hungaroring track partway through the vital final qualifying session to blitz everyone's previous efforts with a 1m 19.5 mark. Admittedly Seb was on new tyres, with everyone else on up until that point on used ones, but it still looked all over bar the shouting.

But then in the final runs Grosjean sent a warning shot across the bows of Seb's time by getting within a tenth of it, before a certain Lewis Hamilton sent a torpedo through its hull. Vettel behind improved marginally, but not by enough, and thus it'll be Lewis who starts at the front tomorrow with Vettel second.

Both Lewis and Seb were at a loss to explain subsequently how this came to be. Lewis said he was 'really surprised' (and his tone over the radio on the slowing down lap betrayed as much) as well as that it 'didn't feel like that great a lap', while Seb declared himself fairly content with his effort, that 'there wasn't much missing'. It's a timely reminder of the mystery that often stalks F1.

Sebastian Vettel may still be well-placed
Photo: Octane Photography
And all of a sudden, we look to have a grid poised to offer us a fascinating race tomorrow. As the man himself cautioned after his pole run, Lewis may end up backing the pack up given the Mercedes often is not able to replicate its qualifying pace over a race stint due to the car's notorious tendency to chew tyres. Add in this time that the Hungaroring is tough on the tyres generally, and temperatures are expected to be off the clock, as well as that there was little in the Merc's longer runs yesterday to give them hope that this time will be different, and the problem becomes particularly likely.

And precisely where this backing up makes itself felt tomorrow, and equally if any one driver can 'escape' out front, could go a long may to deciding who prevails. For as long as F1 cars have circulated around the Hungaroring overtaking has been hard to effect there, and the modern age of DRS and degrading Pirellis hasn't done a great deal to change that. Only at Monaco is track position more of a consideration in strategy calculations.

Perhaps we shouldn't be too down on Seb's chances though, after all if we are to assume that Lewis won't be in the final win reckoning then Seb is best placed for tomorrow, in theory at least. And as mentioned his car has looked supreme in race runs this weekend (as has he). Yet the final throes of qualifying did put a couple of strategically placed pitfalls in his way, on a weekend wherein many expected there to be none.

What can Romain Grosjean do tomorrow?
Photo: Octane Photography
Seb will start on the dirty side of the track, often notorious here, and in third place there starts Romain Grosjean who is continuing his good form seen since the return to Europe. Grosjean has led the Lotus challenge all weekend and he looks well-set to be a thorn in Vettel's side tomorrow, particularly given the car tends to be better in the race than in qualifying. And remember the Hungaroring rather likes providing debut winners (see Alonso, Button, Hill and Kovalainen).

And, following Rosberg, we have Fernando Alonso starting in fifth after a tidy qualifying effort. Like Grosjean he is on the clean grippier side of the track, and he looks a bit more of a potent prospect than he did this time in the last meeting at the Nurburgring. He also has focus, given he's said that his only aim for the weekend is to get ahead of Vettel before the chequered flag falls. The Alonso-Ferrari combination is another that tends to be stronger on a Sunday, and an apparently understeering set up may help keep his tyres in order. For the reasons mentioned the Pirellis will if anything have more of a say than usual in this race.

There were more hard luck stories further back though. Kimi Raikkonen is next up in sixth, and curiously has rarely looked to have much of a grasp on his team mate's pace this weekend, nor has his E21 always showed much grasp on the tarmac. Still, this time last year in Hungary we had a similar scenario, and Kimi came alive on race day, so he still might be one to watch.

It was another hard luck story for Mark Webber
Photo: Octane Photography
McLaren had spent most of practice looking much closer to the pace than it has done for a while. Technical upgrades, plus apparently the stricter rules on tyre pressures and cambers (as the Woking team hadn't been pushing the boundaries on those as much as many of its rivals) have helped seemingly. Yet it evaporated somewhat in qualifying, with Sergio Perez starting P9 (though he had the mitigating circumstances of running in a recently-repaired car after a crash in practice this morning) and Jenson Button P13. But they had nothing on Mark Webber when it came to ill-fortune, who had his latest round of technical problems, this time with KERS and his gearbox. He was able to carry his car into the final session, but at that point he resolved that he could go no higher and will start in tenth.

This and more though gives us plenty to look forward to for some entertainment tomorrow. And before the final part of qualifying today we perhaps wouldn't have had too many reasons to say that.

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